What is an anti-(master)plot?

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Before I say more about “anti-plots,” a quick word about late submissions of Report # 1: I will accept submission (hard copy and e-copy) as late as Monday (June 17) in class, but not later, unless you have a good reason (if this is the case, please contact me asap).

Okay, anti-plots. Some students have asked me to clarify what I mean by that term, which is not really a real technical one. By it I mean any narrative that evidently plays with, subverts, parodies, satirizes or otherwise deviates ironically from a given masterplot. In the case of “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” it’s easy to see that Fitzgerald is undermining at least two important masterplots: the coming-of-age story and the life of a hero. The Beggar’s Opera is more difficult to see as an anti-plot, in part because, as Seyward said, its ironies are harder to recognize from our historical point of view. It is, however, a great and very glaring case of an anti-plot in that it has all the makings of a tragedy: an inexorable determinism leading to the hero Macheath’s downfall, a very likely unhappy ending, a tragic flaw (promiscuity and potentially bigamy, among others), and heroic potential (despite his criminal occupation, Macheath evokes admiration and sympathy). Right when the Katastrophe is upon us, however, the Player and Beggar decide, just like that, to change the ending by giving Macheath a very improbable reprieve (remember that tragedy thrives on necessity, and despises the deus ex machina, the random or undetermined plot twist that ties up all the loose ends). The in-your-faceness of this twist, its cynical intention to make the play more appealing to the public, and the very implausibility of such a happy ending raise the reader/viewer’s awareness of how tragedy (and comedy) act upon us, manipulate our emotions and opinions and influence our understanding of reality.

Incidentally, The Beggar’s Opera was adapted in 1928 (two hundred years after the original played in London) by the Marxist playwright Bertolt Brecht and composer Kurt Weill as The Threepenny Opera, now mostly famous for two of its songs, “Mack the Knife” (especially the cloying Bobby Darren version) and “Whiskey Bar” (covered by The Doors on their debut album). Brecht is relevant to our course, too, because he is credited with developing the political uses of defamiliarization (his term is Verfremdungseffekt, usually translated as “estrangement effect”); defamiliarization had already been an important feature of Russian theories of literature (Russian Formalism), but their version (прием остранения priyom ostraneniya) was primarily aesthetic rather than political in orientation. There is, of course, no contradiction between political and aesthetic uses.

Here are a few examples of anti-plots, which may help clarify what I mean (note that you may not always agree with my assessment–determining genres and interpreting their relative conventionality or subversiveness is always arguable):

1. Brokeback Mountain: structurally, this movie conforms very neatly to one of the great masterplots–the star-crossed lovers (i.e., Romeo and Juliet, West Side Story)–but the fact that the lovers are both male is so at odds with inherited tradition that the very fact that it mimics the masterplot’s conventional actions (meeting/attraction/love/separation/reunion/final separation involving death or personal sacrifice) makes it subversive–an anti-plot.

2. Ulysses, by James Joyce, is an anti-plot in many ways. First, by mimicking the structure of Homer’s Odyssey but re-casting it in 1904 Dublin, Joyce turns a foundational epic of Western culture, full of violence, heroism and action, into a celebration of daily life, with its small heartbreaks (being snubbed by a neighbour on the street) and small victories (talking back to a bigot in a bar). Joyce also turns the adultery novel and the revenge tragedies on their heads; the whole novel is set on the day when Leopold Bloom, a decent but unremarkable ad salesman, learns that his wife Molly is about to have an affair with the suave Blazes Boylan. This event hangs over Bloom’s every thought as he wanders across Dublin, and Joyce lovingly details his every move, from his morning stool and breakfast to his ogling a girl on the beach. When Bloom returns home late that night, he knows that Molly has slept with Boylan but he accepts this stoically. Unlike the masterplots that involved cuckolded men (the fabliau, the revenge tragedy, the downfall of the adulterous wife), Ulysses makes it an non-event, hardly more important that the sandwich Bloom has for lunch. A more recent version of this anti-plot is the movie Blue Valentine, which charts the decline of a couple’s love; one of the facts about their relationship is that they both know that their daughter is not actually biologically his child–and both know the other knows. And yet very, very little is made of this, as if that were really a non-issue. Sean Durkin, the director, seems to be suggesting that the masterplots that we expect from this situation are less interesting than the very mundane yet heartrending experience of love going sour.

3. Darwinian evolution. If you read Darwin’s work, it is remarkable how much his language often sounds like the very theories of Special Creation that he was effectively denying. A better way to put this is that Darwin had no alternative but to use the language he inherited, mostly from natural theology, in order to propose a different explanation for the origin of species. More recent authors, like Richard Dawkins, are more careful, but there is no avoiding the history of words and metaphors. The result is that it’s basically impossible to write an evolutionary narrative that doesn’t by its very nature sound like a parody of creationism. (I’m not saying Darwin or Dawkins mean to do this, just that it is inherent in the language they use.)

4. Some stories on The Onion, the celebrated satirical “newspaper,” are anti-plots in the sense that they present as news stories that are not even close to newsworthy. Some goodies: “8-Year-Old Can’t Understand Why He Isn’t Allowed On Roof,” “Yesterday’s Hagar The Horrible Hit A Little Too Close To Home” and “Area Mom Was Waiting In The Car For 20 Minutes.”

If you’re still not really clear on what I mean by an anti-plot, you might think about unsettling or satirical works you’re very familiar with (say, Sarah Polley’s anti-romcom Take this Waltz, or The Colbert Report, or perhaps the best example I can think of, Adaptation, directed by Spike Jonze). Parodic songs like those by The Lonely Island might also help understand the “anti” part of the “anti-plot,” but most pop songs rarely have full narratives (they include narrative sections, but are rarely narratives in full), so they don’t really cover the “plot” part; still, if you think about why songs like “I’m on a Boat” or “Motherlover” work, you might get a better sense of how “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” works as a subversion of well-known masterplots.

Wow. That’s enough for now. Have a great weekend. Enjoy the Henry James and Ernest Hemingway.

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